Traveling throughout the United Kingdom, I struggle to understand how such a densely populated country can have so much green space and agricultural land. The population density of the United Kingdom is a staggering 650 people per square mile — compared to 84 people per square mile in the United States. One of the ways they achieve this “greenness” is by densely packing the cities, villages and hamlets (a village without a church) — leaving large expanses of green space for agricultural use.
The photo above is typical of English land use. A village with a dense cluster of brick homes transitions immediately to farmland – in this case a livery in the foreground with wheat and rapeseed (yellow) fields in the distance. We lived in a converted barn on the livery shown. As Americans, we found it quite unusual that our landlord could rent the converted 100-year old barn, but was not permitted to build additional housing on the under-utilized portion of his farm. These tight land restrictions, while alien to the concept of unrestricted economics, are what keep the English countryside so breathtakingly beautiful.
The English cherish their agricultural history and, despite a move toward larger scale and higher production farming in the 18th and 19th centuries, still maintain a surprising number of small farms. These are the foundation of the English farm shops, which dot the countryside. The shops range from a home garden with a small “honesty-system”-stand out front to sophisticated local farms — offering fabulous in-season fare and a bit of “shipped in” product for shopping convenience.
On my recent trip back to England, my friends (with an understandable roll of the eyes) agreed to leave an hour early for golf so I could visit my favorite farm shop, which was down the road from our home when I lived in England. They weren’t sure how this could be more important than an extra hour on the practice range, but they are the best of friends and kindly catered to my whim. Off to Hillers Farm Shop we went…
Hillers is a large farm shop. The number of products offered is plentiful due to the size of the farm, which includes produce and locally-raised Ragley meats, and due to the proximity to the Vale of Evesham – a fertile produce belt with a diverse selection of agricultural choices. Hillers even includes a fish market, a garden shop and a cafe for a nice “cuppa”.
* faggots = traditional dish from the English Midlands made from offal.
Do not read this if you are a vegetarian for moral reasons. But for those of you who believe that there is an acceptable hierarchy in the food chain, it shouldn’t trouble you to read about a farm where animals are raised in the lovely English countryside with the intent of ultimately gracing our tables. It wasn’t until I purchased locally-raised meat that I realized that there is indeed a notable difference. English pork is so very tender, while the lamb, especially English spring lamb, is possible the best lamb you’ll eat this side of Australia. I like to think that animals raised on local farms, while destined to become steaks and chops, at least enjoy their short lives grazing in the sunshine.
For more on the selection of fish at the Hillers Fish Shop, see English Fish Pie.
In addition to produce and farm-fresh meats, Hillers has an amazing cheese shop. I could write a dozen posts on the UK cheeses at Hillers, but that will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that English (and UK) cheeses include more than the renowned stiltons and cheddars. It is difficult to pick my favorites. However, they certainly include Cornish Yarg, which has a tasty rind of nettle, those nasty stinging plants that nip your ankles in the summer. Nettle is much better to eat than it is to your skin. I also like Warwickshire Truckle, as delicious as the name is charming.
Now for the creme de la creme of the English farm shop — great produce. The mild UK climate is suited to many kinds of produce. However, it seems to be most appreciated by the cruciferous family — broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, watercress, etc. — which can be found in abundance here. Asparagus, when in season, would give even the delicious Michigan asparagus some competition. There are also so many kinds of potatoes — all with funny names and great taste. Why is it that you can’t find any of these potatoes here in the U.S.? The answer to that question will also need to be a post for another day.
Purple sprouting broccoli is beautiful, delicious and good for you. I can’t seem to tire of it. Unlike green broccoli, it does not require any trimming of leaves or stem skin. It is good prepared simply by steaming — until the stems are tender and the purple color begins to fade to green. However, it also stands up to other flavors in many different preparations. One of my favorites is this easy vegetarian main course of purple sprouting broccoli and pasta.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Pasta
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
Serving Size: 4
1 pound broccoli, purple sprouting, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 pound pasta, dry, penne or similar sized pasta
1 ounce olive oil
4 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon lemon zest
6 ounces Cornish Yarg or Parmesan, grated
salt to taste
pepper to taste
1. Place purple sprouting broccoli in steamer. Steam about 5 minutes until slightly tender and purple color begins to fade. Set aside and keep warm.
2. Cook pasta in salted boiling water. Set aside and keep warm.
3. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and stir 20-30 seconds. Add lemon zest and purple broccoli and toss to coat.
In serving bowl, mix purple broccoli with cheese and pasta. Reserve a bit of cheese for garnish. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve.
I thought I would finish with a final tribute to my favorite English farm shop and the friendly faces that made my shopping experience there so much fun for so long. Don’t you think every shop should see you out the door with a friendly smile??